A Love Affair with the Colombo Oval

S. Skandakumar, in The Sunday Island, 30 August 2020 where his chosen title is “The Colombo Oval and I”

The majestic Oval scoreboard clock showed ten minutes to three on a Sunday afternoon when our final wicket fell. We had conceded first innings points by a small margin to Moors in a P. Sara Trophy encounter. The year was 1973 and it was my first game for the club. The many Moors supporters hugged each other and left the venue to return to Braybrook Place to celebrate. With just half an hour left to tea, and two hours thereafter to the end of the game, their optimism was justified.

In our dressing room our skipper Benedictine Tony Appathurai had other ideas. “I want five by tea,” he thundered as he briskly led us back on to the field for that half an hour. I admired his arrogance!

We came back for tea with Moors tottering at 11 for 4! Johnian Sooriakumar and Josephian Viji Johnpillai produced an inspired opening spell.Immediately after the tea break Tony handed the ball to me whispering ‘finish them o ff’. Forty five minutes later, the final Moors wicket fell with their total at 19, and I had the flattering figures of five overs three maidens two runs four wickets!

We knocked off the required thirty odd runs for the loss of one wicket. Tony insisted that I went in at three to make the winning hit. We were home by nine wickets with time to spare and so began my memorable forty seven year association with the finest sporting and social club in Colombo!

Appreciation

Having watched International cricket at the Oval as a schoolboy from the Gandhi stands, queuing up from 4 am to get a ticket, the experience of playing on that hallowed turf was magical. Prior to that, it was twice in successive years (1965 and 66) in the Royal-Thomian and once in the Gopalan Trophy, (1970) and yet now I was there with an identity. Yes I belonged to that great venue!

More than four decades later my heart still warms to that genial gentleman, and outstanding administrator cum sportsman P. Saravanamuttu whose vision for sport in general for the country and cricket in particular gave birth to that awesome cricket ground and stadium that came to be known as the ‘Colombo Oval’ in 1940.

The only venue in Sri Lanka which for over three decades provided facilities for Public Schools Athletics Meets, National and International Hockey Tournaments, Schools ‘big matches’ and International Cricket.

A selfless act of the Tamil Union in the best interests of National Sport. I felt a surge of pride to be a member!

Personal Challenges

In 1976, at my peak as an off-spinner cum batsman I went down with a virulent attack of Hepatitis that put paid to my chances of playing for Sri Lanka. I followed medical advice to the letter to stay away from strenuous physical activity for three years and in 1979 made my way back cautiously into the club’s cricket scene at Division 3 level under the evergreen Josephian stalwart Felix Perumal (currently Club Patron) as skipper of the ‘Daily News’ Trophy team.

We emerged runners-up and during that period, initiated by Benedictine Selva Perumal, we pioneered the influx of talented young cricketers from the south to the club and to competitive cricket in Colombo. The lads were understandably shy and unsure of themselves at first in an English- speaking environment as the Tamil Union then was. It was refreshing to see how the Colombo schoolboys at the nets rallied round to help them overcome this initial handicap and soon we saw the emergence of a cohesive, confident and strong combination of players.

Yes, the club’s unwritten rule for equal opportunity led to many young cricketers from modest backgrounds achieving their full potential, while the exceptional among them reached stardom!

Sadly the pool of talent in the north was beginning to dry up at this time as painful events began to take hold of that otherwise tranquil area and its gentle, affectionate people.

Progress

After a season at Division 3, I felt ready to move up and found a place in Josephian Rajiv Benedict’s Division 2 team vying for the “Donovan Andree” trophy in 1981.

Rajiv was a revelation on the playing field. Fiercely competitive, he bemused many a batsman with his very late in-swing and amused the genial umpires of that vintage with his aggressive show of exasperation whenever an appeal of his for a wicket was turned down.

The season, needless to say, was most enjoyable and if my memory serves me right we clinched the trophy that year. With Royalist Rohan Jayasekera, the P. Sara team captain migrating to Canada mid-season in 1981, I was yanked out of Rajiv’s team and placed in charge of a very young and talented Division 1 team.

The players showed their approval of my appointment in my very first match as captain against the Police at the Park, when our openers Josephian Wayne Jansz and Mahindian Athula Samarasekera broke a long standing record for the first wicket held by Moors’ Makeen Salih and Herbie Felsingher of 352 runs! A remarkable achievement indeed for two youngsters barely out of school!

At age 35, the following year 82/83 was my only full season as captain and player, and was memorable for more reasons than one. The team and squad comprised of boys from Royal, S. Thomas’, St. Joseph’s, Ananda, Isipathana, D.S Senanayake, Thurstan, St. Peter’s, Prince of Wales, and Mahinda. The atmosphere in the dressing room throughout the season was one of amazing cordiality and good humour while on the field it was serious endeavour.

‘ P. Sara’ had given way to the ‘Lakspray Trophy’ that year as the game needed sponsorship modest though it may have been. As it was the inaugural year for that trophy, we were eager to win it and repeat history to match our peers who annexed the P. Sara Trophy in its initial year.

We lost it to Bloomfield on a scorer’s lapse by a margin as infinitely small as 0.15 points when scorebooks were unprecedentedly opened after the tournament was concluded. That lapse made in the very first match of the final round in recording penalties for slow over rates went undetected throughout the rest of the season!

However, each of us who played in that team will forever look back on that season and say with pride that ‘we won that trophy on the playing field and conceded it off it to uphold the spirit of the game.’

Headlines such as ‘Tamil Union’s Mathematical Magic’; ‘Tamils do the Impossible’ and ‘Tamils Worthy Champions’ told their own story of how that final game in the tournament was planned and executed!

Exhausted mentally and physically at the end of that memorable season, I then turned my attention to tennis at the club which in the ensuing years became almost a daily ritual inspired by competition of an enjoyable nature from like minded fellow members.

Recognition of the Club

In 1981, Sri Lanka’s admission as a full member of the International Cricket Council as a ‘Test playing nation’ was very much on the cards and was conditional upon the availability of an appropriate venue. The Oval was the only venue that met the standards stipulated by the ICC when the application was tabled in London at Lord’s that year.

Warnapura, Gamini Dissanayake and JR Jayewardene before the First Test 1982

Appropriately the first ever Test match versus England was played at the Oval in February 1982, opening a new and exciting chapter in the nation’s cricket history. Happily three years later the first ever Test win was also registered at the same venue when India were humbled.

The blessed turf for decades was nursed with motherly care by the only grounds women the world had known at that time, Mari Amma (Mary) and her daughter Innasi Amma. In later years, Amaravathy and her sister Saroja continued the excellent work under the supervision of Head Groundsman H.D Jayasena. I was privileged to be Hony Ground Secretary when the ‘Inaugural Test’ was played in 1982.

The Setback

A year and half later, the events of ‘July ‘83’ had a devastating impact on the club and its premises. The main pavilion suffered extensive damage and valuable records and photos were irretrievably destroyed. A contribution from the Colombo Cricket Club was the only gesture of financial goodwill the club received at that time.

The then Cricket Board’s silence was deafening! A monumental tragedy for a club that provided so much for cricket in particular and sport in general for the country.

Gifts of cricket equipment were received from the High Commissions of England and Australia.

The Revival

In the club’s centenary year in 1999-2000, which coincided with the new millennium, a re-development programme was pursued in earnest. As club President in that period, I was fortunate to have office bearers as dedicated as the players I had in 1982/83 when I led the club’s Division 1 cricket team. The general committee provided excellent support to me to put into effect the programme of activity aimed at the resuscitation of the club. Well wishers both in Sri Lanka and overseas contributed generously to swell the Development Fund. Donations from overseas- based members and well wishers from the US, UK, Emirates, Botswana, Zambia, Australia and New Zealand were proof, if indeed proof were needed, of their appreciation of the service that the venue had provided for the cause of sport over the decades.

A quote from a letter from the then CEO of the England and Wales Cricket Board Tim Lamb merits recording. His letter reads: “We recall with sadness the events of 1983 and their impact on your stadium because I know that the ‘OVAL’ to Sri Lanka Cricket was in many ways what Lord‘s is to us today. I have no doubt that you will receive the fullest support in your efforts to restore the stadium to its former glory “

The initiatives to re-vitalise the club in 1999/2000, were taken to greater heights by succeeding Presidents and their committees. What we have today is a tribute to their perseverance, commitment and generosity in terms of their time and resources as also that of our sponsors and well wishers over the years. The Cricket Board’s support merits special mention.

The contribution of our sportsmen in the centenary year also merits mention. Our cricketers annexed the championship of three of the four tournaments conducted by the Cricket Board (Premier Limited Overs, Under 23, and Div 2 Donovan Andree while ending runners-up in the fourth viz the Premier Division 1 League) Our Tennis stalwarts not to be outdone annexed the Veterans All Island over 55 singles and doubles titles rounding off a unique year for sport at the club.

To the incoming members and those who have joined in recent years, I say acquaint yourselves with the proud history of this great institution which has stood unwaveringly for all that is fair, just and equal in its every endeavour. When it is your turn to take office remember what has gone before you, and never forget the responsibility you have to maintain its rich traditions and above all its cherished reputation.

Today is what it is, and tomorrow what it might be, simply because of all the yesterdays.” For me, the forty seven year association with the Oval, has indeed been “A Rewarding and Emotional Affair to Remember”

Bradman and Sathasivam at the toss at the Oval, 1948 

 Ceylon team walks out to field

Sathi Coomaraswamy bamboozles Bradman    Ceylon & English Womens Teams at the Oval 1948

2 Comments

Filed under Australian cricket, cricket and life, cricketing icons, memorable moments, performance, player selections, politics and cricket, sportsmanship, The Oval in Colombo, tower of strength, unusual people, work ethic

2 responses to “A Love Affair with the Colombo Oval

  1. Lionel Gunasekara

    Hope TU will endeavour to get copies of those valuable photos from the Archives.Muesum Library and JRJ centre and post a suitable request on FB so that whoever who wishes to assist can do so.
    IT’S NOT TOO LATE .
    Thanks Michael for shareing SKANDAS fine article

  2. Nagalingam Ethirveerasingam

    Thank you Skanda. You played great memorable innings on and off the field. Glad I was able to meet you just after the tsunami.

    The Oval was the Athletics field from the beginning of TUC&A. I enjoyed jumping there from 1948 till 1961.
    Have a creative and joyful retirement.

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